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Barrier-breaker Anderson dies at 96

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Marian Anderson, the brilliant contralto whose 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial was a singular moment in civil rights history, died Thursday. She was 96.

Anderson died in the home of her nephew, James DePreist, the Oregon Symphony’s music director. She had suffered a stroke last month.

Her artistry and quiet elegance endured despite the obstacles of racial prejudice. Through her tenacity and talent, she helped dispel the myth that blacks could not excel in opera and classical music.

“She was grateful that she was able to make a difference, but her goal in life was really to make music, and when that opportunity was denied, there was the outrage of a nation, rather than her outrage,” DePreist said Thursday.

“She was not bitter about it and never exploited it.”

Anderson was the first black artist to entertain at the White House and the first black to sing a major role with the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

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Opera singer Roberta Peters, who also was in the Met cast that day, recalled Thursday that “when we took bows, we were all applauding her. It was something unforgettable for those who were on stage.” She called Anderson a “modest, lovely, charming, religious, very, very, dear, special person.”

The haunting perfection of Anderson’s voice was heard in concert halls around the world, her rich and soaring tones cradling spirituals and Schubert lieder, Verdi and Handel, the “Marseillaise” and “America.”

“Yours is a voice such as one hears once in a hundred years,” the conductor Arturo Toscanini once told her. “You are the greatest singer alive.”

The Lincoln Memorial concert epitomized her long struggle against racial discrimination. It came about when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to rent her Constitution Hall in Washington for a concert.

Although the DAR claimed the date was already taken, Eleanor Roosevelt thought Anderson was a victim of discrimination and resigned from the group. The First Lady arranged for Anderson to sing at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday. The event attracted 75,000 people.

She told the racially mixed audience: “I am so overwhelmed, I just can’t talk. I can’t tell you what you have done for me today. I thank you from the bottom of my heart, again and again.”

As her career wound down, she regretted all doors had not been open during her prime.

“If I only could give what I had to offer then. But they wouldn’t accept it, or me,” she said. “Other Negroes will have the career I dreamed of.”

Born Feb. 17, 1897, in Philadelphia, she began singing at age 3 and joined her church’s junior choir by age 6. Two years later, she earned her first money as a singer — 50 cents.

Her father, a coal and ice dealer, died when she was 12, so she sang to help support the family. Her mother, a schoolteacher, lived to age 89.

Anderson was accepted as a pupil by voice coach Giuseppe Boghetti. In 1925, she was chosen from 300 competing singers to appear with the New York Philharmonic. With financial support from fellowships, she studied in Europe in the late 1920s.

In 1933, a Berlin promoter arranged a concert for a $ 500 fee. Success was instantaneous and before returning home she performed across Europe and for the kings of Sweden and Denmark.

For 30 years, she could be heard from Rome to Berlin, from Stockholm to Salzburg. She recorded many of the works from her recital programs.

Her voice stretched more than two octaves. Her favorite music included Schubert, Handel and Mendelssohn, Christmas carols, spirituals and old American songs. She sang more than 200 songs in nine languages.

But always, her career was marked by the struggle againstdiscrimination as her singing opened door after door — to hotels, restaurants, concert halls.

As a youngster, she was refused admittance to a Philadelphia school of music because she was black. Later in Atlantic City, she was given the keys to the city but was not allowed to stay in a hotel there.

She rarely spoke about prejudice but in a 1960 interview she said: “Sometimes it’s like a hair across your cheek. You can’t see it. You can’t find it with your fingers but you keep brushing at it because the feel of it is irritating.”

She became a symbol of the early civil rights movement, not by speaking out, but by her choice of songs, particularly Negro spirituals, which often veiled protests. She said prejudice “may be frustrating in the beginning, but it makes you stronger. In sitting and brooding about it, you only lose a lot of valuable time.”

She became the first black to entertain at the White House when President Roosevelt invited her to sing during the 1939 visit of England’s King George VI. In 1953, she became the first black to perform for Japan’s Imperial Court in its 2,600-year history.

Perhaps her most victorious moment on stage came with her belated debut as Ulrica at the Metropolitan Opera on Jan. 7, 1955, in Verdi’s “Masked Ball.” Although her voice was no longer at its best, the audience cheered her so loudly that the orchestra came to a halt.

Joseph Volpe, general director of the Metropolitan Opera, called Anderson’s performances there “among the most important events of the century for this company and this country.” But he added that her historical importance should not obscure her importance as an artist.

Anderson continued singing for another decade, ending her career with a triumphant four-continent tour that culminated at Carnegie Hall on April 18, 1965, another Easter Sunday.

In 1991, she received a lifetime achievement Grammy award.

She lived for decades in the Danbury, Conn., countryside with her husband, architect Orpheus H. Fisher, whom she married in 1943. He died in 1985. They had no children. In July 1992, she moved to Portland to live with DePreist and his wife.

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